we touched down at melbourne international early monday morning, dec. 7th and dropped our bags at a midtown hotel. pernille went off to do diplomacy, and i went off to explore.
the city of five million seemed to be in the grip of a bad hangover.
melbourne, and the entire state of victoria, has been in complete lockdown for most of the year. no one in or out by land, sea or air. tight restrictions on movement. it worked. zeroes across the board for more than a month.
we were among the first allowed in since the reopening.
out on the streets, the city is doing a rip van winkle, groggily awakening from a long slumber to find a changed world. life in the age of covid may never be the same.
even a cup of coffee was hard to find.
up one semi-deserted street and down the next until – hold on! – commotion! police!
in front of the state library of victoria, officers with shoulder mounted cameras were monitoring a bunch of scruffy characters in hammer and sickle gear folding up tents and hauling away pots and pans and bedding.
over the previous days, as melburnians huddled in their homes, the aussie communist party, along with a sister group called the community union defence league (known by the acronym cudl. cute!) had built a tent city on the library steps offering shelter and a hot meal to the homeless. it had attracted a crowd.
performative? sure. but there are more people “living rough” since covid. communist party flyers advertising an “open air homeless and community service” were welcome in many quarters.
with the lockdown over, however, melbourne’s finest rousted them from their sleeping bags with an ultimatum: take it down by noon, or we will. it was getting close to noon, and the hammer and sickle gang was in “beat the deadline” mode.
communists in australia seem to be a different cup of tea than those back home. in most of the the u.s., “communist” is a dirty word, though it’s enjoying a heyday under several aliases.
here, it seems, they’re loud and proud, gaining followers by providing services for the downtrodden.
the group’s organizer, wearing a jacket with the party logo boldly emblazoned across his back, says communism is attracting young people faster than his organization can keep up. “I’m 27, and i’m one of the oldest in the local party,” he explains. “some of them are almost too young.”
ok, not that young!! a few blocks further on, at federation square, a family of immigrants from nepal is taking pictures in front of the christmas (chrissy to aussies) display to send to relatives in kathmandu. nepal is a hindu country, though interestingly, the communist party currently holds power there. the silver and blue belled tree accented by steeples from the nearby st. paul’s cathedral makes a nice backdrop no matter where you’re from.
federation square is among melbourne’s favorite meeting places, drawing more than 10 million visitors a year (pre-covid) with its family-friendly events and fantastic, free museums, so i popped into the national gallery of victoria and spent a chunk of the afternoon catching up on local lore. two of my faves were the legendary bad-guy hero ned kelly, australia’s billy the kid, who was hanged at melbourne gaol (jail) in 1880; and the story of “waltzing matilda”, the unofficial national anthem. (would you recognize the official one?)
Ned Kelly was a notorious criminal, feared as a robber and murderer. Despite this, he had many sympathizers who believed he was a symbol of the Australian spirit – an enduring underdog with the courage to challenge the authorities.— state library of victoria website
it seems in every australian museum you’ll find a celebration of the art and culture of the continent’s first peoples, and a warning about the impending doom of climate change.
a serious case of aching feet told me it was time to circle back to the hotel, where we had deposited our belongings what seemed like eons ago. taking off my shoes, i glanced out the window to see the australia 108 skyscraper, our next door neighbor. the residential tower was completed just a few months earlier, and initial reviews have been mixed. an apartment on the 100th floor, the highest residence in the southern hemisphere, is advertised at $25 million (pssst! i hear they’re offering discounts)
what came as a surprise is that melbourne is among the world’s major financial capitals. two australian cities make the list of the global top 15, with melbourne trailing sydney by a shade in the rankings, but closing the gap. the victorian capital is a city of 21st century gleaming glass towers.
we arise early the next morning because it’s going to be a short day in melbourne. we’re due back home in canberra by early evening. so it’s off to experience the “magnificent mcg”, the hallowed melbourne cricket grounds. the “G”, as its known, has witnessed many glorious moments in sport, including the 1956 olympic games, the commonwealth games and many fabled football (footy) finals.
(everything is abbreviated in australia; abbreviations are “abbys”, i think)
the mcg seats a measly 100,024 fans (fannys?), which according to some internet websites ranks it among the 10 largest sports venues in the world. number one on the list may surprise you. answer below.
australia was hosting india in a big cricket test that day, but not in melbourne, so the cavernous building was deserted. still, it was awe-inspiring to walk through the olympic village and stand at the site of the 1956 games that i had imagined as a boy from newspaper reports and black and white TV snippets. australia might have been on another planet, for all we knew back then.
a walk around the perimeter of the “G” provided a great introduction to some of australia’s sports legends. names like dennis lillie, don bradman, leigh matthews and ron barassi are the australian equivalents of american heroes like michael jordan, mohammed ali, babe ruth and jackie robinson.
and aussie olympians betty cuthbert and shirley strickland de la hunty are right up there in the firmament of stars with americans babe didrikson zaharias, martina navratilova and jackie joyner.
the “G” is not just a sports venue, either. in addition to the olympics and the 2006 commonwealth games, it also hosted queen elizabeth three times; in 1954, 1970 and 2006, as well as pope john paul in 1986. billy graham’s evangelistic crusade drew a record crowd of 130,000+ in 1959. but safety regulations don’t allow that size crowd any more.
one last “foot”note, and not an insignificant one. australian rules footy began on the lawns outside the “G” more than 160 years ago. and the melbourne clubs are among the best. this year the grand footy final was between two melbourne teams, but covid forced a relocation of the match to brisbane. that was a rare occurrence. every other footy final since 1902 has been staged at the mcg, except 1924, 1942-45, and 1991.
and just in passing, there’s the rod laver arena, site of the australian open, a grand slam tennis tournament, right next to the mcg. the 2020 open (opie?) was probably the last international sports competition in melbourne before the nine-month lockdown.
the 2021 event will be pushed back from january to february to give players time to quarantine and acclimate before the tourney begins. qualifying matches for men will be held in doha, for women in dubai.
australian open tournament director craig tiley expressed the emotional importance of maintaining this glorious sports tradition, and the global spotlight that comes with it, in healing the psychological scars inflicted on melburnians.
“it has taken 8 months of working alongside government authorities here in victoria, nationally and interstate, to give us the opportunity to present an australian open that will play a major role in both the economic and psychological reinvigoration and rejuvenation of melbourne and victoria.
craig tiley, aussie open director
that should have been enough for a mad dash through this great metropolis and financial center. this piece is already too long for a blog post (sorry, mom), but on the way home i’m accosted by an oversized silver chimpanzee. my camera pulls itself out of my pocket.
meet david greybeard. he’s eight months late because of you-know-what, but he’s finally here, unveiled this morning while i was wandering through sportsland.
david is an inflatable sculpture by australian visual artist lisa roet to commemorate the 60th anniversary of british ethologist jane goodall’s pioneering work that gave the world new insights into chimpanizee behavior.
a check of the jane goodall institute home page revealed some other startling insights. for instance, while observing chimpanzee behavior in the gombe stream national park in tanzania, what type of shoes did jane wear most often?
see, bet you didn’t know that. and another thing you probably didn’t know is what is the largest stadium on the planet? it is the rungrado may day stadium in pyongyang, north korea, which seats 150,000 fannies.
and so with this whirlwind at an end, the airport beckons. the melbourne arts center’s final message is a whirlwind warning:
due to safety regulations, david greybeard will need to be deflated when winds are above 40 km/hr.
but not today.
oh, and by the way, i walked everywhere during the visit, except to and from the airport. no ubers, no trolleys (though they are free in the city center), 100% shank’s mare.
My Dearest Son, As you noted , this was a bit long, however, I did find it interesting. I enjoyed your humor. That is necessary to keep us, your followers interested. I am awaiting the next installment. Your devoted fan. I love you. Mom